Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Jenny Hall
With the reopening of theatres, there has been a rapid scaling back of digital offerings so the Shake Festival’s return to Zoom for its production of The Winter’s Tale is a little unexpected. But with isolation rules forcing productions to suspend performances, director Jenny Hall opts for the safety of a digital show performed by actors in their own homes and streamed to YouTube. It is a compromise that pays dividends, using words alone to conjure the intensity of Shakespeare’s magical tale of paranoia and redemption.
King Leontes of Sicilia suspects his wife Hermione’s adultery with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. Polixenes escapes leaving Hermione publicly accused and humiliated. Casting off their newborn daughter, Leontes’ jealousy angers the Gods, leaving him with nothing. Years later, the young Perdita, raised by a shepherd falls in love with Florizel but her true identity can be concealed no longer.
Hall’s interpretation of The Winter’s Tale is simply staged, using none of the Zoom tricks and filters that theatre companies including the Old Vic and Original Theatre have utilised to disguise the now familiar Zoom boxes. But this Shake Festival show is hardly the worse for it, demonstrating once again that Shakespeare’s words alone can just about sustain three hours of performance.
While basic Zoom limits the directorial choices and sometimes feels like a throwback to 2020, Hall peoples the story as she would onstage by including attendants, messengers and shepherds as observers, enhancing the impression of a wider Court in Leontes’ palace and the crowded countryside gathering in Act 4. The latter is particularly tricky to stage online, and here further exposes the failure of Shakespeare’s pastoral interlude, the language lacking the power and poignancy of the Sicilian scenes that bookend the play.
The disadvantage of sticking to the letter of Shakespeare’s stage directions, however, is occasionally to distract from the intensity of the speaker, especially in the opening scenes where Leontes’ running imagination and bitterness is a small square among many, the important asides that are not quite soliloquies paled by this decision. On stage, characters in personal contemplation or private duologue would be drawn forward to emphasise these exchanges, but Hall leaves everyone on screen, detracting from the intimate, psychological moments and conversations taking place beyond the earshot of others in the scene.
Likewise, with a few notable exceptions, the cast rarely react to the events of the play, as though forgetting they are still visible to the audience, particularly noticeable during Hermione’s shaming and trial where the surrounding courtiers fail to express any shock, outrage or support for their royal masters despite the violence of Leontes’ language.
But Hall has gathered an impressive cast who speak the verse with an easy, conversational rhythm. The Winter’s Tale stands or falls on the strength of its lead, and Mark Quartley is a towering Leontes, conveying a man who first swells and then drowns in his own madness, giving his performance a twitchy, ready anger that is very credible as his suspicions overwhelm his judgement. His emotional sorrow following the Oracle’s message is well managed, while Quarterly’s transformed and humbled final Act-Leontes is full of pathos.
There are strong supporting performances from Charlotte Hamblin’s dignified Hermione, Leo Wringer’s kindly and wise Camillo and especially Wendy Morgan as a forceful and grave Paulina whose few scenes are a particular highlight. For a digital production running at over three hours, a greater willingness to cut (especially the lengthy and tedious Bohemian section) would create greater fluidity and pace, but it is a shame that Hall has been unable to fully stage this adaption for a live audience at the Suffolk Shake Festival and can only hope there is a future opportunity to do so.
Reviewed on 31 July 2021